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Adventures / Trail Running / Exclusive: Hitting the Great Himalaya Trail with Ryan Sandes

Trail Runner Ryan Sandes

Last week, professional trail runners Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel set a speed record on a section of the Great Himalaya Trail, an epic thru-hike tracing the world’s highest, most majestic mountain range. In 25 days 3 hours and 24 minutes they traversed 1,504 kilometers across Nepal—that’s over a marathon a day for 25 days—trimming four days off the previous record across the same defined stretch of the megatrail. Not long after their adventure began, a rumble of criticism of their attempt at a fastest known time from leading trail runners emerged on social media.

If you are not a runner, the idea of a “fastest known time,” or FKT, seems sort of counterintuitive. Why would anyone need to do something as cool as hiking the Himalayas’ greatest trails, passing through teahouses and villages, as fast as physically possible? But still, in our humble opinion, exploration is personal, and you should do it in a way that’s meaningful to you, fast or slow—whatever. What do you think?

We spoke to Ryan about what he says was the greatest adventure of his life—and indeed, it sounded AMAZING. See the interview below.

ROAM: Exclusive: Hitting the Great Himalaya Trail with Ryan Sandes
Dean Leslie / Red Bull Content Pool

THE TRAIL EXPERIENCE

What drew you to the Great Himalaya Trail?

Ryan Sandes: For me, the Great Himalaya Trail has always been kind of the pinnacle, or the Holy Grail of the long-distance trails. It was something I wanted to do one day, but I knew it was such a long way and so intense that I always thought it was out of my reach.

After winning Western States last year, I decided that I wanted to give it a try. I really wanted an epic, wild adventure. This definitely was. It was definitely the craziest thing I’ve ever done, and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

What landscape and features did you encounter?

Ryan Sandes: The landscape was really varied. Obviously, you get the big mountain landscapes, the mythical, romantic Himalayan snow-capped mountains. In areas like the Dolpa region, it was very remote, strung out, and quite dry in some sections.

Within those big mountain landscapes were these little villages all over the place. Some villages looked like kind of those Mad Max kind of towns—really old towns with only a couple of people living there. We passed through more rural areas that were farming areas lower down and sections with rice fields and a lot more people.

Annapurna and the Manaslu regions were a lot more touristy. Instead of only being able to get rice and tea, we could get chocolate bars and stuff like that.

That sounds amazing. Had you done much in the high Himalayan passes before this adventure?

Ryan Sandes: No. I had never actually done too much stuff in the Himalayas. Ryno had done a bit of stuff, but it was a really unique experience. For me, It was the first time going over passes above 5,500 meters.

I’m sure that was very epic.

Ryan Sandes: It was, yeah.

ROAM: Exclusive: Hitting the Great Himalaya Trail with Ryan Sandes
Dean Leslie / Red Bull Content Pool

THE RECORD

How did you all decide what you wanted to do for this record attempt?

Ryan Sandes: Because the Great Himalaya Trail is composed of a whole mix of trails, we specifically set out to better Andrew Porter’s record. We spoke to him and got his criteria to make it a fair challenge. He gave us about nine checkpoints, with a start and finish. Basically, we had to cross those checkpoints. Within those checkpoints, we could choose our own routes.

We could still deviate a bit from the routes that he took, but obviously, also going through the same key points. That route was a combination of both the high and the cultural routes. It wasn’t purely all on the high routes. I think for both Ryno and myself, we both wanted to experience the whole of Nepal. We didn’t want to just experience the high mountains.

By doing some of the cultural routes, too, we got to experience the high mountains and the really remote areas. But then we also got to experience a couple of the more popular areas lower down, and some of the villages, and get a better sense of Nepal by seeing and meeting a lot of people.

That sounds like a great way to do it. Were the Nepali people pretty impressed by how quickly you guys were moving?

Ryan Sandes: Yeah. I think a lot of people looked at us quite strangely. They couldn’t understand why we were running and trying to cover ground as fast as possible. For them, a lot of the trails are used to commute between towns, or with mules and donkeys, to take supplies from one town to the next. The trails a way of life. They’ve never thought of it as a recreational place to try and see how fast you can cross the countryside.

It was really amazing just how welcoming people were. We would knock on peoples’ houses at like 10:00 at night, and they would just welcome us in and make us food, and let us sleep in their beds. They’re just a really amazing and special people.

Was the trail pretty exposed in parts, or kind of a whole mixed bag of trail conditions?

Ryan Sandes: It was really mixed. Because they had a really late winter, we had a lot of snow and ice on the trail, so navigation was really difficult. And a lot of the trail was kind of washed away with landslides and stuff like that. Especially the early parts of the route were really tough.

But then, yeah, we had quite a variety of more runnable stuff. Parts of the trail were also really exposed, with blue ice and stuff. It was quite sketchy in a few places to get through sections. It took quite a while. We actually had to take ice axes for certain parts of the route. It was definitely slower and harder going than what we expected.

I was joking with Ryno toward the end saying, “Now I’m ready to put on a suit and tie and work a 9-to-5 job because this has sucked all of the adventure out of me.”
— Ryan Sandes
ROAM: Exclusive: Hitting the Great Himalaya Trail with Ryan Sandes
Dean Leslie / Red Bull Content Pool

THE ADVENTURE

You’ve had some really impressive podium finishes, and you did mention that you wanted to go on a great adventure. Now that you’ve done this great adventure, what would you say is the benefit of doing an adventure, over like a race?

Ryan Sandes: What drew me to the sport has always been adventure and getting out there. I love racing, but it’s very structured—and you know exactly what you’re going to get. Whereas doing an adventure like this, there are so many unknowns, and you don’t know what to expect or if you’ll finish. It’s a real adventure. I really enjoy that element of it.

Were there any moments where you thought, You know what? We need to stop. Too much adventure?

Ryan Sandes: I was joking with Ryno a few times toward the end saying, “I’m ready to put a suit and tie on now and work a nine-to-five job because this has kind of sucked all of the adventure out of me.” But just one or two times, such as when Ryno got frostbite. He was battling with his hands for quite a while.

He also injured his knee, later on. So, those two times were touch and go. He also had some breathing problems later on. You just never know you’re going to finish until you see the finish line.

Did you have any of the frostbite or stomach bugs? Was he having pulmonary edema-type symptoms?

Ryan Sandes: No. I think he had issues from all of the stress and pounding. His heart rate was quite high for one day. That caused him to be lightheaded and a bit dizzy. His chest got tight. We both got a stomach bug. I had it for about two days, and Ryno had it for a day.

Like you said, there was always something getting thrown at us, some curve ball.

I’m sure the mental challenge of persevering through all of that must have been pretty mighty to get through.

Ryan Sandes: Yeah. Running wasn’t that tough. I actually felt like I was getting stronger as we were going along. But mentally, it was really tough. Also, physically, on my actual system, like my stomach from eating so many chocolates and other food I’m not used to. I’m still pretty fatigued from so many days of lack of sleep. That’s really taken it out of me.

What made sleeping difficult?

Ryan Sandes: Especially toward the end, we did a lot of long stretches where we would only sleep one or two hours a night. That just catches up with you.

Did you mostly stay in villages? Where did you guys sleep?

Ryan Sandes: In the more touristy areas, we would stay at teahouses along the way, which were in villages. We also stayed in a couple of random places. One night, we actually got to stay at a monastery because there was nowhere else to stay. A lot of the times, especially in the really rural areas, we would just stay at peoples’ houses.

You mentioned chocolate bars. Did you all eat some Nepali types of foods, too?

Ryan Sandes: We ate a lot of Nepali food, a lot of curry and rice, a lot of omelets and vegetables.

That’s probably not what you typically eat during a huge endurance event. As you developed your confidence in the mental challenge of this, what did you learn about how to be mentally strong?

Ryan Sandes: I think it was to take it one day at a time, and try not to focus too much on the bigger picture. If you know you’re going to be out there for 25 days, mentally that’s too overwhelming. So, generally just try and focus on one day at a time.

Just try and stay positive, and really absorb it and realize it’s a once in a lifetime experience. You’re never going to do this again. Focus on the positives, interacting with people and enjoying that, and making the most of the scenery and the environment. Just not getting too serious. We chose to be there, so just make the most of it.

So, the scenery. Did you see Everest and the other famous 8,000-meter peaks at all?

Ryan Sandes: We did see that in the background. That was pretty amazing.

It would be hard to keep running. I suppose you see it for a long time, because it’s big! But the views must have been pretty amazing.

Ryan Sandes: They were really, really spectacular.

Was there one moment where you were kind of overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape and experience that you could tell us about?

Ryan Sandes: Definitely. On the tenth day, when I was in the Annapurna region, we got absolutely perfect weather on top. It was just really, really spectacular. It was postcard stuff to be so close to them, and just taking it all in was really amazing. That was definitely my best day.

You mentioned that some of the trails are used to connect villages. I’m curious what types of people or activities did you see going on, on the trail, in different sections.

Ryan Sandes: It’s varied. The Annapurna and Manaslu area, you see a lot of trekking and a lot of tourists. But the other trails, it’s a lot more local people and a lot of donkeys transporting supplies. And then, you see a couple of local people, as well, kind of just going from one village to the next, kind of going from their village to a bigger village to get supplies. In some of the more rural areas, where the farming was, you would see quite a lot of people just moving from place to place.

Did you guys experience much weather happening while you were on the trail?

Ryan Sandes: Yeah. We got one or two days where the weather got quite wild. Like in the Manaslu area, where we went over the peak up there, we went through quite a crazy snowstorm. That was quite hectic, because we were quite high, and just trying to move through all of that snow. But actually, nothing major. They had a massive storm, just before we started. I think that was kind of the final big storm at the end of winter.

ROAM: Exclusive: Hitting the Great Himalaya Trail with Ryan Sandes
Dean Leslie / Red Bull Content Pool

THE GEAR

What was your gear kit for this?

Ryan Sandes: Yes. I guess having a waterproof jacket, a waterproof tent. A down jacket, we used a lot. That was really important, to keep us warm. Then, stuff like a base layer and tights. Standard running gear, as well, like kind of what you would use for western states, like shorts and t-shirts. I also had like a beanie, a balaclava, gloves. I had waterproof gloves and warm gloves. I had, obviously, shoes and a backpack.

We also had three dropped bags along the way, so we could kind of rotate gear, which was a help. I managed to rotate shoes, which was also really important.

Did you wear regular trail runners for your shoes?

Ryan Sandes: Yeah. I had custom made Salomon shoes. But then, in one area in the Dolpa region, we took more kind of snow boots, although they were kind of running shoes like Salomon shoes, but they’ve got a big gaiter for snow.

Did you ever wear crampons or microspikes or anything?

Ryan Sandes: No. There was once or twice, I wished we actually had them, but we didn’t carry them.

I guess you had your ice axe, when you needed it. It sounds like you did need it sometimes, too.

A couple of times, yeah. It was pretty wild.

ON FKTS

GHT veteran Lizzy Hawker posted some interesting commentary about your record attempt. For me, I think people should set their goals and do it, and that’s what it’s all about, and having the experience. But I’m curious, what do you think about that kind of discussion, that’s going on?

Ryan Sandes: I was actually really disappointed with her response because we made it very clear exactly what we were doing. We weren’t trying to go on the high routes. We never said we were going for the overall Great Himalayan Trail [GHT] fastest known time. We made it clear that we recognized that the GHT is a series of trails, and there is no one set route.

We made it very clear that the FKT website has recognized it as kind of the modified lower region. We sent out all of the info way in advance, and I answered all of her questions. She kind of came out and wrote this open letter, and said I hadn’t answered her, which was absolutely not true. I don’t think she did herself any favors. I was really disappointed. And then, also like off the record, she has sent me an email saying, “Wishing you all the best,” and stuff like that. I didn’t really understand if she was kind of trying for attention or what. I just found it very bizarre. Having been a sponsored athlete herself, she should understand that a lot of stuff is out of our hands, like media.

I appreciate that people have opinions and really love the sport. But at the same time, I think it’s really about the experience and pushing yourself, and defining your challenge.

Ryan Sandes: Exactly.

As a person in the media, I know we try to get it right. But a lot of times, editors gravitate to the simplest way to describe something, and that’s not your fault.

Ryan Sandes: That’s all good, and as I’ve said before, obviously FKT is cool, but it definitely wasn’t the primary reason for me. I’m most stoked about the adventure we had, and the unforgettable experience that we’ll never forget. I think that’s the key thing. I think the FKT part of it is secondary.

What’s one of your early memories of long-distance running, and who were you with in that memory? Is there someone who kind of introduced you to what has become your life’s passion?

I guess I stumbled upon running during my last year at university. I decided to enter a marathon, because a whole bunch of my friends were running it. I did some very minimal training. And then from there, I really, absolutely loved it, and got into trail running.

Some of the early memories are with Eric Tollner, a friend of mine who introduced me to trail running around Cape Town, just running on Table Mountain with him.

You started kind of late …

Ryan Sandes: Yeah. I started quite late. I surfed a lot at school, and played a lot of rugby, but didn’t really do too much athletics.



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